“Sentimentality, in all its forms, is the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause.”
“We are moved by what happens, not by the whimpering or bawling of the writer’s presentation of what happens . . . we are moved by the characters and events, not by the emotion of the person who happens to be telling the story.”
Sentimentality is a mistake of young writers. It's an attempt by the writer to make sure that the reader understands that a character is experiencing extreme emotion, usually by forcing the issue by over-explaining or over-emphasizing extreme emotion. It yanks a reader from a story because it’s a forced attempt to elicit emotion from a reader. Sentimentality is exaggerated emotion. Even a composition textbook calls it into question: "Sentimentality . . . implies insincerity, a performance to impress others rather than the expression of genuine, deeply felt emotion.”
Gardner makes a distinction, however. When he writes of sentimentality, “[Gardner] takes it for granted that the reader understands the difference between sentiment, . . . that is, emotion or feeling, and sentimentality, emotional or feeling that rings false, usually because achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration.”
Cliches can contribute to sentimentality by masking the writer's true feelings with store-bought phrases, such as, "It changed my life forever. From then on, I knew that it was my job to be a tender-hearted, kind, loving person who would always out others before self." How does a good reader react to this fakiness? Is this a realistic feeling, or is it a feeling borrowed from a motivational seminar? Read any inspirational self-help book and you'll see wonderful examples of overstated sentimentality.
The basic rule of the literary writer goes like this: the more that real emotion can be revealed 1) sparingly, and 2) through plain, simple action and dialogue rather than large gusts of emotion, the more powerful it will be. To reveal extreme emotion only sparingly is to make it more meaningful whereas having characters be overly dramatic or cry a lot makes the emotion become less meaningful, and revealing emotion through simple, subtle description lends and air of reality that is necessary to make the emotion seem justified to the reader.
In sum, sentimentality negates realism; real people don't talk this way: "My mother was the light in the darkness, the beam of hope that cleansed my heart." This is extreme example of sentimentality that is dishonest.
Here's a humorous definition from the Parametric Awareness Training group, who describe themselves as bringing to America, the "'Self-transforming' insight of the East with contemporary global practices in life and work." Whatever. Here's their definition about how sentimentality can be almost as dangerous as dangerous as taking a seminar from these people:
sentimentality is generated by one's indulgence. Somebody or something irritates
you and you lose temper. The heroine of the story cries and you cry with her.
You see somebody in a wretched condition and get emotional. Something challenges
you and you get defensive. Somebody threatens you and you get aggressive. You
are being sentimental. Anybody can make you dance to his own tune. Are you a
puppet? This immature sentimentality turns you into a puppet. The human
alternative is being passionate; thereby creating
your own tune to dance to."
Sentimentality is the same in writing. The author thinks that by almost literally screaming, "It's time to feel sorry for me," the reader will feel pity. Smart readers, however, get angry instead. Smart readers are not puppets, but sentimentality treats them as such. It’s okay to weep, but when writers try and force the reader, or in movies, the viewers, to weep by using fraudulent methods, they are being mean.
How to Avoid Sentimentality
The key to avoiding sentimentality is to trust your action, dialogue and description to accurately convey character's emotions by the things they do and say. And the character's actions and words should be true to life, not exaggerated. Always ask yourself the question, would this particular character, if a real person, do or say this in real-life?
A scenario: A writer writes about his grandfather, a Minnesotan emigrant from Poland. He likes to fish and complain about politics and the closest he comes to expressing feeling to his grandson is to ask, “You got oil in your car?” Now, imagine that grandson trying to invoke an emotional response in the reader by having the grandfather on his deathbed, whispering, “Give me your hand, Jimmy.” The writing continues: “As I lean close to the bedside, my usually stoic grandfather whispers in a last gasp, ‘I’m proud of you Jimmy,’ and then as he shuts his eyes, a final tear streaks down his cheek.”
First of all, the tear streaking down the cheek is on overused sentimental cliche. It calls attention to itself in that it's trying too hard to get the reader to understand that there is emotion happening.
Secondly, real people don’t often change on a dime like this "textbook" scenario describes, but more particular to this character, this is not a character than in life would be sentimental, and probably wouldn't be sentimental on the deathbed. This kind of forced, cliche scene is often the stuff that movies are made of: abusive fathers redeem themselves at their deathbeds, saying unbelievable things like, “I know I was a bad father, but try to forgive me,” and they throw their arms around their weeping adult children before they finally die. And the audience weeps. This is more wishful-thinking, however, or idealism, rather than realism, which is what we aim for in literary fiction.
The kind of “sentiment” this grandfather character expresses here doesn’t happen in reality. In reality, on their deathbeds, if old men say anything, they usually say something like, “Get me a beer," and thus, that might be a basic revision of this dialogue in order to avoid sentimentality in favor of realism. The line “As I lean close to the bedside, my usually stoic grandfather whispers in a last gasp, ‘I’m proud of you Jimmy,’ and then as he shuts his eyes, a final tear streaks down his cheek" becomes "I lean close to the bed and Grandpa whispers, 'I'm proud of you. Now get me a beer.'"
Or something like that; anything to avoid unreal emotion.